In yet another loss, he had a record-breaking night.
Johnson has been a bright spot during the losing streak and throughout a miserable season in the Motor City, surpassing Jerry Rice's NFL single-season yards receiving mark.
Johnson also became the only player with 100 yards receiving in eight straight games and the first with 10 receptions in four games in a row in league history. He had 11 receptions for 225 yards, giving him 1,892 this season with one game left. Rice had 1,848 for San Francisco in 1995,
After making the record-breaking catch in the fourth quarter, Johnson jogged over to the sideline and handed the football to his father.
"That was a very special moment," he said.
There haven't been many of those this season for the Lions, a season after they won 10 games and ended an 11-year postseason drought.
The Falcons (13-2) let the Lions pull within five points early in the fourth quarter, then took control for good on Ryan's fourth TD pass to wide-open tight end Michael Palmer in the fourth quarter and Matt Bryant's 20-yard field goal with 3:05 left that gave them a 15-point lead.
Atlanta got what it wanted, home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs, and didn't mind Johnson had a milestone-filled night.
"We had defenses to stop Calvin, but we also knew the biggest thing was to get the win," Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. "We have not peaked yet, we're just going to keep improving."
The Lions (4-11) have been relegated to playing for pride this month and that hasn't been going very well, losing seven straight games in what has become the league's longest active losing streak.
Atlanta turned three Detroit turnovers into points, running any chance it had of winning when Johnson had his night in the spotlight.
"Seventeen points off turnovers is the difference in the game," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said.
Detroit hasn't had this long of a losing streak since it had one lasting an entire season when the laughingstock of a franchise became the league's first to go 0-16 in 2008, when Johnson was in his second season.
Johnson surpassed one of Rice's records with his 10th catch in the fourth quarter that put him over the 200-yard mark in the game. He needed 182 to surpass Rice's mark.
He had more than 100 yards receiving for an eighth straight game, breaking an NFL record set by Charley Hennigan in 1961 and matched by Michael Irvin in 1995.
It was Johnson's 11th game with 100 yards receiving this season, tying Irvin's league mark. In the first quarter, Johnson surpassed Herman Moore's single-season franchise record of 1,686 yards.
"I've been an NFL fan my whole life, dating back to watching Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry as a kid, and I've coached in this league for 19 years," Schwartz said. "I've seen a lot of Hall of Famers, but I've never seen a better player than Calvin Johnson.
"He just broke a record set by Jerry Rice, who is arguably the best player in this history of this league."
Befitting a season that has gone badly, though, Johnson fumbled in the first half to help Atlanta add to its big lead.